After my post about avoiding Burnout through breathing, sleep, and diet, I had quite a few questions about what exactly we eat, and finding the time to fit the food into a busy lifestyle. This post has more details about the diet and practical tips for getting started. If you haven't read the previous post, I suggest you start there, as this post is a follow up, and will make more sense if you start with the first post. The original post gives an explanation for why eating this way can improve your health, and I would not have tried this diet myself without knowing the why, as it involved some big changes to my eating habits. It also includes some information about sleep, yoga, and deep breathing. This post though, is all about the food, which while it is also the most work, it is also where I experienced the biggest changes to my health.
You are what you eat and when you eat the right foods, you go a long way towards good health. Although I spent many years sick and seeking treatment with conventional doctors (at least 10), it wasn't till I started experimenting with diet that I found my way to good health. Although I am not a doctor, and you should of course talk to a doctor before making diet changes if you have health problems, I write this in hopes that the years of research and experimenting I put into my health, will help you or a friend with your health.
In general we DO eat mostly vegetables (2 or 3 servings with every meal), then a single serving of protein, and some fruit). We would eat nuts, eggs, and seeds if we could, but my youngest is allergic so we do not have them in the house. These are great and healthy ways to add variety to a healthy diet if you do not have allergies.
In general we DO NOT EAT processed foods (other than occasional cheats), do not eat dairy (other than occasional cheats), do not eat items with added sugar (other than occasional cheats), and only eat grains once a week (other than occasional cheats). Perhaps you've noticed a pattern of cheating? That's because you can maintain health gains and weight loss as long as you come back to eating healthy. I will go into more detail about how to find the ideal healthy to cheating ratio for yourself later (very scientific ;) ) but for the first month I recommend eating as close to the following rules as possible:
1) No dairy
2) No processed foods
3) No added sugar
4) No grains
Why? Giving yourself a month (or as close as you can get) will give your body a chance to reset itself, and the need for sugar that eating the Standard American Diet (SAD).
mise en place - Everything in its place
Eating healthy ends up taking more time in the kitchen. In spite of being married to a chef for many years, I managed to avoid learning a lot of how to do much in the way of cooking. My clearly inferior skills in the kitchen were not needed, so I just helped a bit. I started this eating healthy with relatively few cooking skills, and preparing healthy food for the week took me a LONG and frustrating time, almost 4 hour of my Sunday to prep food for the week! That prep included veggies, fruits, and proteins for lunch and breakfast. When I t0ok the time to get everything in it's place (mise en place), by picking up a few key items for the kitchen, and a few important skills; I cut my time on food prep for the week in half, depending upon how much I wanted to get done (i.e. how lazy I felt about cooking on that day). The two keys to less time in the kitchen needed (other than time to increase my skills) were good knives, and cutting techniques. Chefs the world over have spent a lot of time defining the 'right' way to cut things. The 'right' way is usually the most efficient way to cut the item (whether it be vegetable, fruit or meat). Although my husband has a book about this, I often find it quicker and easier to just 'Google' how to cut whatever new item I am trying to prepare. This step takes a lot of extra time at first, but if you are not already familiar with how to cut and prep your food, taking the time to establish the correct way to do it now, will save you lots of time in the future. Videos like the examples below make it easy to pick up these skills!
Don't underestimate the importance of a good set of knives (this would not have occurred to me before I married my husband, so please excuse me if this seems to basic), but good knives make life much easier! We used to have a set of Wutoff knives at home, but my husband uses them at work. We bought a cheaper, but very functional set on Amazon. We chose these knives based on my husband's professional opinion, and the recommendations in the book "What Good Cooks Know" from America's Test Kitchen (which is by the way a great book to get if you need to stock up your kitchen). We have the following knives at home (and love them). If you can only get a few knives, start with the Chef's Knife, and the Pairing Knife.
Victorinox 8 Inch Fibrox Pro Chef’s Knife - This is the knife I use most often in the kitchen!
Wüsthof Classic Paring Knife Classic - For smaller items.
If you want to stock up on a full set of knives we also like and use:
Victorinox Swiss Army 6 Inch Fibrox Pro Boning Knife with Flexible Blade
Mercer Culinary Millennia 10-Inch Wide Bread Knife - We don't eat bread often, but when we do, this comes in handy!
Breakfast, lunch, dinner and more!
What exactly do I prep for the week on Sundays? I usually cut fresh vegetables for salads (carrots, mushrooms, etc.), cook sweet potatoes and mushrooms for lunches, and prep meat or eggs for the week as well.
Eggs are great breakfast food, and can be prepared quickly in a variety of ways. Sadly, our youngest was born with 22 food allergies (which is a whole different story) so eggs are off our menu for now. However when we could eat them, we had them most days for breakfast, one of three ways:
1) Egg Muffins:
It's easy to make enough to last the week. You can throw a wide variety of meats, vegetables, and/or herbs, into muffin trays, pour scrambled eggs on top of it, and cook in the muffin trays. These can be put in the fridge and reheated each day of the week for about 5 days. We limit cheese in our house (really limit it right now as my youngest is still allergic) but here are 12 recipes to get you started.
2) Hard Boiled Eggs in a Hurry:
If you need a faster breakfast try it's also easy to get perfectly done hardboiled eggs by baking them in the oven when you don't have the time for egg muffins. Read about that here. Hard boiled eggs with left over vegetables and some fruit are a great, quick breakfast.
3) No time on Sunday Eggs:
Finally, for weeks when you just don't have the time to cook for the next week, cooking scrambled eggs on low in the morning usually only takes about 5 minutes. Keeping the temp. very low makes it possible to leave the pan (for making all important coffee) without burning the eggs. Throwing leftover vegetables from last night's dinner are also an easy way to vary scrambled eggs.
4) No time for Eggs:
Having a week when you don't feel like making eggs? Just make some extra protein on Sunday for the week OR plan to cook extra with each night's dinner, and eat it again for breakfast.
1) My favorite thing to eat for lunch is a Mason Jar Salad. Simply put the dressing on the bottom, add some hardy vegetables (I like to put carrots, radishes, and/or tomatoes in my bottom layer, followed by peppers, and mushrooms), finish with your salad greens on top (as far away from the dressing as possible). When you are ready to eat it, simply flip the jar over, shake it up, and dump it out. I pack the protein separately. You will have a fresh, well dressed salad ready in minutes (easy to fit in on a 20 minute teacher lunch schedule). You can make these on a Sunday, and they will still be good on a Friday).
2) If it's not the right time of year for salads, I usually go with a protein, a few vegetables, and some fruit for lunch. This is where the Sunday cooking time comes in, I generally cut up some carrots, and cook some mushrooms, broccoli, or sweet potatoes to put in lunches during the week. Sometimes I will cook a meat like chicken for lunches too. Our lunches usually contain some avocado as well, for a healthy fat. Sometimes we are also lazy and use a healthier prepackaged lunch meat (no hormones, nitrates, added, etc). A good quick lunch is a piece of lunch meat with some avocado wrapped in it (with a bit of sea salt). If you have more vegetables prepped, adding some cooked mushrooms, or roasted garlic to the roll up is also great (or rolling up the the whole thing in a large leaf of lettuce to add some greens to the meal). The kids eat the same lunches as the adults, even at school. My children and I use Planet Boxes which are stainless steel with compartments. These make it easy to pack a meat, a few vegetables, and a few fruits in lunches. When I don't have the time or will to cook on Sunday for lunch for the coming week, we plan to make more at dinner, and use leftovers in our house for lunch. Below is a slideshow of a week worth of lunches at our house. There are a lot of repeats, but this is what is fresh now and in the garden, I'm okay with it (and so are the kids)!
Dinner usually consists of meat, 3 different kinds of vegetables and some fruit. There are a lot of possible variations here, especially as you look at what is available locally. I highly recommend the website NomNom Paleo for easy to follow, kid friendly recipes. The cookbook is great too!
Staple Veggies: We try to provide a variety of fruits and veggies to our kids, but we have some veggies that the kids love and are quick and easy and, and show up frequently.
1) Broccoli: Trim it, put a pot on the stove to boil, add salt till the water tastes like salt water. When water comes to a boil, throw the broccoli in and let it cook for 5 minutes. While cooking, prepare a bowl with cold water and ice. After the 5 minutes put the broccoli into the ice water. Let sit for a minute, drain and toss with olive oil and salt to taste. Quick and easy and good for when you need to use the oven to cook other things.
2) Cauliflower: Two great and quick ways to prepare:
a) Trim it, toss in olive oil salt and pepper with a few cloves of garlic. Cook at 450 till golden brown. Turn at 10 minutes and give it at least another 10 minutes.
b) Cauliflower mashed potatoes. Steam cauliflower till tender, drain and throw in the food processor with olive oil (or butter) salt, and a garlic till taste. Blend till like mashed potatoes (totally fools my kids).
3) Sweet Potatoes: My KIDS love Sweet Potatoes one way and one way only, and this is the way (I think this is the only thing I make that they actually like my way better than 'Dad's way. Pre-heat oven to 450. Peel and slice between 4 to 6 sweet potatoes. Slice the potatoes thinly. Toss in olive oil with 8 cloves of garlic. Lay out on sheet trays, and sprinkle on salt and pepper. Flip the potatoes and sprinkle with salt and pepper on the other side. When the oven is ready cook them for 20 minutes, take them out and flip them over and cook another 8 to 15 minutes, checking every 5 minutes or so, the finished product will look almost burned but not quite, so good!
4) Mushrooms: My kids love cooked mushrooms, and we eat them both as a stand alone vegetable and as an addition to salads or lettuce wraps at lunch.
What about those nights when you just can't cook?? We all have them, but if pizza isn't an option anymore, we usually opt for a pre-cooked chicken at our favorite grocery store. Combine this with some guacamole, veggies and fruit, and you can have a quick meal in minutes.
After eating this while, I found myself needing/wanting snacks during the day less and less (a sign that your body has a good amount of fats ready to burn), however when you are in need of a snack (especially when first starting the diet) a handful of nuts and a piece of fruit is very satisfying. My time for snacking on the really unhealthy stuff was often after my kids were in bed at night. When I want to binge on sugar now, I try a big piece of fruit (or two) like an apple and/or banana and a big glass of water before giving into temptation. That usually helps me quite a bit.
I've found that I can eat one 'non-paleo' meal plus one dessert a week and still not have negative effects on my health. More than that and I don't feel as good, which helps me stick to the diet. When/if you start this diet, I recommend trying to stick to the diet as cleanly as possible for a month to evaluate how it makes you feel. If it seems like things are going well, slowly add a few cheats back in each week. Notice how they make you feel, and decide what works best for you based on how your own body reacts. A few of my favorite treats for when I'm trying to be good include:
Candied Pecans- Paleo other than the sugar, add these to raspberries and blueberries for a fruity treat that almost tastes like pie.
Banana ice-cream- Better than it sounds, and a great way to use up old bananas.
Liar Balls- Almost like candy but not quite.
A side note on cheating during the holidays...sometimes I cheat a LOT from Thanksgiving till the New Year. That's totally okay, and I know that I will go back to healthy eating when I am ready for it. I just pay attention to how I feel, and stop myself to have a 'healthy food break' if I start to get migraines or low energy again. The point of this way of eating is not to deprive yourself, but to set new habits of generally healthy eating. Eat your cake, and don't feel guilty, as long as you eat something healthy too. :)
Kids and healthy eating
My sons were easy to sell on healthy eating, as we have been eating this way since they were old enough to eat food. My daughter however was a hard sell. She was 4 when we started eating this way, and would often say she 'hated' the new food. Especially as she was used to eating homemade bread and pasta every week. Three things that really helped 'ease' her transition:
1) If you eat the SAD diet (Standard American Diet) your body is programmed to eat large amounts of sugar (and expects and craves it) because most of us eat too much of it (I know I used to, and still do sometimes), but your brain is also made to be able to recognize when something has high nutritional value, and even if you do not like something initially, you can grow accustomed to the taste when their is a high enough nutritional pay-off. I always have my daughter take at least 3 bites of food she says she 'hates' so that her brain can learn to 'like it'. I explained this reasoning to her and she got it. She takes her bites without complaining now and encourages her siblings to do the same.
2)It also helps to include a familiar vegetable kids already like (for example broccoli) with something they are less familiar with (i.e. brussel sprouts) that way you know the kids will have something to eat even if it's not their favorite.
3) Get the kids involved. My kids love to peel potatoes, wash lettuce, snap beans, and assemble salads (which they are way more likely to eat if they help make). My daughter is very proud of her little 'dog knife' (it's the one with the orange 'tail') hanging with all of our knives and loves helping with it.
I was okay with my kids occasionally not eating a lot for dinner when they said they didn't like it, they learned some valuable lessons. My pediatrician is very supportive of our diet, and said if anyone ever questioned it to let them know are kids are thriving on it. They are often surprised that my youngest has gained weight so well, since usually it is hard to get kids with so many allergies (22) to gain weight. He is thriving and happy on this diet!
For your Information
The following books are helpful to read when developing your diet, and will help you understand how foods effect your body. Fair warning, you can't 'un-know' this information (as my family like to say). A lot of this information changed the way I see the world quite a bit.
Grain Brain- A great book for explaining the impact of gluten and sugar on the brain. You will never look at a delicious piece of bread the same again! Mwahaha (wah!!!) :)
Brain Maker- Very interesting description of how important gut bacteria and the micro-biome is to our overall health. It was information in this book, that helped me realize my son had food allergies before he tasted any 'dangerous' food. I was able to clear his skin of severe eczema (that we could not clear with medicine) and give the doctors a pretty accurate list of what I thought he was allergic to before the allergist tested him. The doctors were skeptical at first, but are now all very interested in this research. My pediatrician told me she thinks work with the micro-biome will be the next big field in medicine. It is also the reason the only supplement my family all takes is a good pro-biotic. Born with 22 food allergies, at his testing a few months ago, my son had a 50% reduction to all his allergens across the board. This could be just him growing out of them, but those are impressive numbers. I have been using information from this book to try to help him (I consulted my pediatrician, allergist, and asked Dr. Perlmutter, the author, a question before I 'experimented' with probiotics and my youngest. I am glad that we have tried it, and hope he continues to see good results.
The Omnivores Dilemma- A great explanation of the path of our food from farm to table. Important but also sad. Michael Pollan is a great author, and I've enjoyed all of his food books I have read.
In Defense of Food- An exciting explanation for why eating more traditionally is better for our health.
Nom Nom Paleo - My favorite Paleo cookbook, easy to follow, easy to make, kid friendly, and fun to read.
Against All Grains- A great cookbook with everything from breakfast to dinner (including some pancakes and muffins)!
Paleo Takeout- Good for those new to Paleo that want something that resembles food from the SAD diet (and some tasty treats).
Well Fed Paleo- Easy to follow recipes, and a really great description of how to prep for your week on Sunday.
The New Family Cookbook- America's Test Kitchen- Not strictly Paleo, but once you know the basics of the diet you can 'Google' Paleo substitutions (or in some cases just leave things out). This book will tell you how to pick the best food, along with fundamental cooking tips that will just make all your meals better!
What Good Cook's Know - Everything you could want to know about what equipment to buy for your kitchen. Systematically tested by America's Test Kitchen (reliable and knowledgeable)
Below are a few of the documentaries I've watched in relation to diet, and where I've streamed them. This is not an extensive list and I will try to add to it as I come across more information. It was watching 'Forks Over Knives' with my husband that finally convinced him we needed to experiment with our what we ate, for the sake of our health.
Intermittent Fasting is the last practice I do to improve health. In a nutshell, it is calorie restriction, either with a long fast a few times a year, or by skipping a meal on a daily basis (usually breakfast). Our ancestors did not eat constantly the way we do now, and would often go for periods of time without food. I used to hate when people would say , "I forgot to eat", because I would get shaky and headaches if I didn't eat, and I couldn't understand how others could just forget to eat. The shaking and headaches came from the sugar drops and spikes in my blood stream when I ate the SAD diet. When I switched to this way of eating, I can easily skip meals and not even feel hungry. That is because my body has a proper store of energy built up and ready to burn when I don't eat (and by occasionally fasting I give my body the chance to burn it). This is not something that I would recommend doing until you have been eating Paleo for a few months. When my husband and I started doing it (note the kids do NOT do it) we barely noticed skipping the meal, and not eating breakfast made it easier to get ready in the morning. We fast by not eating after 10pm at night, until lunch time the next day. Eating healthy, I don't even miss breakfast.
Why do it? Intermittent Fasting (not eating for 12 hours if you are doing it on a day to day basis as we do) gives your body a chance to burn stored fat, go into a state where it cleans out damaged cells, increases the production of new neurons in the brain, and has even been shown to lengthen the telomeres at the end of our strands of DNA (telomeres are related to longevity).
In conclusion, I hope this was a helpful post for those considering making a switch in their diet. They were big changes for me, but the health benefits I've seen for myself and my family have been life changing. Thanks to diet changes we've got rid of severe eczema for my son, and severe migraines for myself. We have all lost weight, and have way more energy. Several friends and family have had similar results, but I won't share their stories without permission. Hoping that this post helps someone find their way to better health!
I began working with children as a camp counsellor in high school, and worked in an exploratory pre-school at Eastern Michigan University while in college. My teaching career started with four years as a classroom teacher (3rd grade and 5th grade), followed by starting an exploratory language program for my district, a year as a Science teacher for K-3, a few years as a middle school Spanish teacher, and finally four years as an elementary Spanish position as I wrap up my 12th year in the classroom. Throughout my teaching career I also taught Academic Support after school Spanish and Summer Spanish. My undergrad was in Elementary Education, with minors in Spanish and Science, my Masters was in the Art of Teaching, and my +30 focused on Spanish, Science (mainly neurology), and education classes. My time spent in the classroom, and watching students develop at various stages in their lives, sparked a deep interest in neurology and how our brains work. Through my studies, and through insight I have gained as I learned about language acquisition as a CI (Comprehensible Input) teacher, I have many ideas on ways we can integrate what makes CI so compelling into the general education classroom. Many of my biggest successes in the general ed. classroom have an explanation in neuroscience or C.I. What follows in an explanation of how to move some of the core concepts of C.I., such as personalization, compelling input, and story telling, into the general education classroom.
If you do not already know basics about how the brain works please check out my post entitled, Classroom Theory. I went into a lot of detail on the basic function in the brain in this post. This blog will help you understand where the recommendations in this article come from. If you already have a good basic understanding of how the brain works, read on for practical ways to apply neurology and CI in the classroom.
The amygdala is part of the brain’s limbic system. When it senses threat, it becomes over-activated. In students, an overactive amygdala is associated with feelings of helplessness and anxiety. In this state of stress-induced over-activation, new information cannot pass through to access the memory and association circuits in our brain.
This is called the affective filter by language acquisition expert Stephen Krashen. This term describes an emotional state of stress, during which students are not responsive to learning and storing new information. Objective physical evidence of this state of stress can be seen on brain scans. Growing up in poverty, or in an abusive home also has a strong negative impact on our student's abilities to learn. What this means, is that often our students that have the hardest time learning, that can be the most disruptive in the classroom, are the ones that need our patience and support the most.
On the other side of things, positive motivation in the classroom impacts the speed at which we learn, and the release of neurotransmitters that increase executive function and attention.
“The highest-level executive thinking, making connections, and “aha” moments of insight and creative motivation are more likely to occur in an atmosphere of exuberant discovery, where students of all ages retain that kindergarten enthusiasm of embracing each day with the joy of learning.”
-Judy Willis MD
During my years as a middle school Spanish teacher I was one class short of my position being full time. Thus, I was given an Academic Support class to keep my schedule full. An Academic Support class meant a small classroom of students that were struggling in their general education classrooms for various reasons. These students were failing or far behind in classes for various reasons, my job was to help them pass.
At first I tried strict rules and checking homework logs. This was a failure. These students had already been in a constant state of stress throughout the day, both in classes where they did not have their homework and felt behind; and the normal teenage hormonal roller coaster associated with being a middle school student. They didn't need to feel like they were being judged anymore, and when I tried making them work quietly, with a homework log it was just one more thing on their plate. The students feeling like they were being judged led to their affective filter remaining high, and made progress frustrating. Being in a small class with other students that liked to challenge teachers, the students would often try to mess around and compete to make the others laugh when they should be quietly working.
As I continued to work with the kids, they taught me a lot about what did work for them. First a friendly smile and a few minutes of talking when they entered my room. We'd all just sit and talk for about 5 minutes, about whatever they wanted. Often they would share something frustrating that had happened with their day. Then students would each pick their own spot in the room (this was the beginnings of going deskless for me). Some laid on the floor, others sat at a table and chairs, a few were under desks. Wherever they chose was okay for me, as long as they were productive. One at a time I would call the students up to my desk and we would check Powerschool and each of their teacher's websites to look for missing homework and upcoming tests or assignments. I didn't react with judgement when a student was missing work. I'd just ask if they needed help, and make a 'to-do' list for each kid. After checking in with everyone I would circulate and help the students as needed. This non-judgemental support, and the freedom of picking their space (being shown trust) as long as they were productive were my first two steps in the right direction. Grades slowly began to improve, and the students gave me less of a hard time.
Even with these interventions I still had a student that challenged me daily. Even when the other students were at their best, he would find a way to disrupt the classroom and get everyone off task. The key for this student was talking to him on his own. After one particularly frustrating incident I asked him into the hall to talk. Rather than begin by addressing the problem behavior; I looked him in the eye and asked him how I could help him. He immediately began telling me about a fight he had that morning with his father. After telling me about yelling at his dad, he seemed as if a weight had been lifted off of his shoulders. He returned to class and worked diligently for the rest of the class. It took time, but eventually he learned that rather than create a disruption when he needed attention, he could just come and ask me to talk. Even though taking the time aside from the other students seemed hard at first, the small moments invested with this student had large positive gains both for the student and the classroom in general.
"Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of the vessel." - Socrates
As my year with these students grew to a close, I worried about what would happen to them when they left my classroom and moved on to high school. My students were improving but many of them lacked an important ingredient to success, motivation. I had previously spoken with my students about what they wanted to be when they grew up, and tried to use this as a motivating factor for studying certain subjects. I took things a step further, as I felt they needed to hear the importance of an education to their future, from someone other than a teacher or parent. For every student in my class I set up a connection to a professional that did their dream job. Two of my students Skyped with a National Geographic photographer, one went and did a job shadow with a Chef at a popular local restaurant, another spoke with a pilot on a phone, and yet another exchanged emails with the LaCrosse coach from Michigan; we even had soldiers visit the classroom.
All of my Academic Support students passed their classes, but more importantly they began to see theirselves and their potential. They personalized their learning and understood why it should be meaningful for them, and they let down their affective filters and started to reach their potential.
Behavior & Motivation Theory
One of the things I find fascinating about the human brain is the presence of 'mirror neurons'. These are neurons that activate when we see someone doing an activity that make us feel as if we are experiencing the activity ourselves. Have you ever been so into a sports game that you feel like you are in the game? Or felt yourself wince in sympathy when you see an injury? Or wrinkle your nose in disgust when a character on a TV show smells something gross? This is because neurons in our head light up that make us feel as if we are experiencing what we are viewing. Scientists are still debating whether the purpose of these neurons is to help us understand the actions of others, or even the intent of others (or maybe both); but the implication I see for the classroom is that if we are passionate and energized, our students mirror neurons will respond in turn. However if we are burned out and exhausted, our students feel that too.
Interested in reading more about mirror neurons? Click here for a good overview. What this means for motivation in general in the classroom, is be enthusiastic about what you teach, believe in it. If you are into what you are teaching, your students will pick up on that, if you are not, they will also pick up on that too. You'll know that is true if you think about any PD you have ever attended, what made the difference between a good PD and a great PD? If you can show the students your passion for your subject, it will ignite their passion in turn. Remember, mirror neurons are watching!
Teacher burn out is another important issue to address, when teachers are burned out students pick up on that too. For ways to address that issue, please read my post here.
Importance of Prior Knowledge
Anyone that has attended an education curriculum class, knows that teachers are supposed to activate students prior knowledge when starting new material. Whenever we recall information from our memory, we modify the information that we recall, to connect it to new things we learn. When we store the information again, it has changed to accommodate our new knowledge. Connecting new information to previously stored knowledge, helps us store the new information.
Math was not my favorite class as a student, however I came to love it as a teacher. How can brain science be applied to math class? Several ways!
One, our brain, much like a muscle, gets better and faster at what we practice correctly. However, practicing a skill incorrectly can ingrain incorrect behavior in our brain. Furthermore, if we do not understand the skills needed in Lesson A in a math sequence, then often the following lessons are not effective as they build on the skills in the first lesson. Therefore, making sure students understand concepts is key. One of my checks for understanding when I taught math was a nightly math assignment. Each student had roughly 10 problems from the lesson that day. Parents knew that students were not expected to spend more than 15 to 20 minutes on this homework at night (if it took them longer than that it meant they didn't understand it, and the affective filter would go up, making further practice useless and potentially harmful to success). Each day at lunch I would quickly grade my 60 math papers. Anyone that had trouble with the homework would have their papers sorted into a separate pile. Near the end of the day a few parent helpers came to my room (I had pre-trained my 'math parents' at the start of the year). They would take the pile of incorrect homework into the hall, and meet with each student that had struggled with the work to correct the problems with the student. Parent helpers would give the students a few new problems to make sure that they now understood the concept. Students earned all points back for the corrected homework that they missed when they turned it in originally. A few ways to do this if parent volunteers are not plentiful would be to have older student volunteers tutor students, or perhaps pre-student teachers from local colleges in need of pre-student teaching hours. To cut back on grading time, a multiple choice Google Form test could be created (not ideal, but Google self-grades now and you should be able to spot struggling students still, especially if students know they won't get in trouble, but will get help if they don't do well).
Another brain based practice I used in the math classroom was to apply math in ways that were meaningful to the students. For example, when we were practicing story problems I had each student research the price of a toy they wanted. We then brainstormed a list of chores they could complete to earn money, and decided a fair hourly rate for each chore. Students then had to figure out approximately how long it would take them to complete which chores to earn their toy.
We also spoke about exciting future applications for math skills, from architects to space travel, budgeting a trip, to the number Pi. Students need compelling material to see how math applies to their future as a part of their reason to learn something. It is not enough to tell students learn this because I said so, or for a grade, we must show them why the information is important to them if we expect them to truly desire to learn it.
In our district we took a standardized test called the NWEA. Expected growth was 1 year for all students, my students achieved between 2 to 2.5 years of growth, and I did not try to 'teach to the test'. Standardized tests are not everything, but it is one measure of growth that is easy to share.
New exciting work in the field of literacy, shows that the greatest increases in vocabulary (both in your first language and any additional languages you may learn) comes from reading. What's more, it doesn't matter what the students are reading (Captain Underpants or more scholarly texts) as long as they are reading COMPELLING material they will be engaged. For more information on Free Voluntary Reading check out S.D. Krashen's work here. This could work in a language arts setting, by giving students time to free read every day. Rather than a reading log, or assignment to go with each chapter, the teacher could have students do a book review after reading the book, to recommend it to other students. The 'book review' could come in many different forms including (but not limited to) a comic strip about the book, a character analysis of their favorite character, an online review with room for comments from other students, a video review, etc. Giving students many different ways to express themselves will allow each child to shine. Joy in learning, leads to increase in brain activity. A short book recommendation or representation of a favorite chapter, would be an easy way for the teacher to check for comprehension, without the student feeling the need to read for a test. Teachers can also have students read to them occasionally if necessary to check progress. Do not be afraid to show your students your love of reading. Take the time to read with them, let them see that you read too, mirror neurons are watching!
When having your student choose a non-fiction reading piece, consider giving your students several different pieces to choose from (or using the internet and a safe search engine to choose their own topic). Students will do better at informational text when the information is compelling. The skills they gain reading compelling material, will still help them in their overall reading ability, and will make all material easier to read (even something that isn't as compelling on a potential standardized test).
Additionally, recent MRI scans show that we use two different part of our brain to read. When we are reading something we believe we will need to remember for a test, we use the pre-frontal cortex (the part of our brain responsible for logic and reasoning), however when we read for pleasure, we generally use the mentalizing part our brain. The 'mentalizing' system is the part of our brain that handles relationships and our place in the world. MRI studies also show that in most people this is the most active part of our brain, becoming active whenever our brain is not directly using the pre-frontal cortex to solve a problem (even when it's only for a few seconds). The mentalizing system is generally quicker at storing new information, and a great resource to help students learn new information more quickly. Perhaps because they use it to tie the new information to their own 'story'. When students read self-chosen, compelling material for pleasure.
Science is a passion for me, and I enjoyed teaching it both as a classroom teacher, and as a Quest teacher (a "Special" science class for Kindergarten through 3rd grade). As with the other subjects, it is important to show the students your passion for the subject. Teach your students the standards they need to know, but as before, it is important to make it meaningful to them and help them connect it to the larger picture. If possible, making the material compelling always increases the rate at which we learn.
An example of how this would work in a science unit is when I taught magnetics to 2nd graders. We did the general activities that were suggested in the science curriculum (learning about push and pull, and what objects are magnetic and which are not, magnetic poles, and magnetic fields etc). However then we connected it to the larger world and made it meaningful. We talked about the magnetic field surrounding our planet, and how about how sometimes the magnetic poles flip! After learning about how scientists are starting to use nano-particles and magnets to deliver medicine to tumors we used magnets to guide 'nano-particles' (aka safety pins on a maze of the brain I drew) to tumors. Students loved class, and learned so much, because the material was compelling and important to them. They could see it's value to the world.
When letting students have choice in their learning, compelling material creates itself. An example of this would be taking a larger topic, for example, 'The Wetlands' and breaking it down into smaller parts that appeal to different children. I did this as part of a 5th grade unit. The Wetlands were part of our curriculum. I wanted to personalize this material for the students so I broke the Wetlands up into different topics. Amphibians, water plant, surrounding plants, reptiles, birds, mammals, etc. Students secretly wrote rated the topics based on which was most interesting to them. They were placed on groups based on their interests. Each group researched their topic. E-mailed a biology professor at a local college with a question, and created a unique and exciting way to share what they had learned to the class. We did role playing games to help them understand the eco-system. We took a field trip to a local wetland and my old biology professor guided us through the eco-system. The students became so passionate about the wetlands that they wanted to host a fundraiser to donate money to protect them. We hosted an after school karaoke fundraiser. Not only did the students have a great time, but after we donated our money to the Sierra Club, the class became the first group of children to win the Sierra Club Group Chair award for their donation and project.
When presented with compelling material, difficult concepts can become manageable, and students become more willing to take on risks and challenges.
I wanted my students to understand the concept of learning from our past to further our future, and tied it to a science unit that provided both compelling and challenging material and some deeper thinking. I was watching 'The Universe' when I first heard the Issac Newton quote "If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants." This quote seemed like the perfect jumping off point for my theme, and tied nicely into our unit about space. I chose a 8 to 10 scientists who's work had built upon each others. Ranging from as far back as Aristotle to as recent as Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I taught students a little bit about each scientist, and then let them choose one scientist to research. I printed leveled readers about each scientist ranging from very easy with big pictures, to very dense articles several pages long. I let the students self-select. I was surprised to see that most of the students, even my struggling readers, chose the longest text. When I asked them why they chose their text, it was because they were excited about the materials. I've never seen students apply themselves to such challenging material with such excitement before, but it wasn't because of me, it was because the material was self-chosen and exciting to them. The best reward of the school year came a few days later when two of my boys who were sometimes more into sports than school, told me they had been arguing the whole bus ride in about whether Einstein or Newton was the best scientist. That was my favorite 'argument' of the school year.
The success my students had in science was not because of anything special about me as a teacher, but because the material became meaningful and important to the students.
This is an area that I only taught for a few years, so have less experience in, however the theory should still apply as we still learn with the same amazing brain. Show the students your passion, and they will be passionate too.
Connect the material to something important to the students. Look at larger patterns in history if possible, and compare them to patterns present in the world today to increase the importance of your lesson. Show students how the past influences the present.
When studying a certain time period, consider creating several sub-topics about the time period for an independent research project for students. For example, if you were studying the renaissance period, sub topics might include: food, drink, fashion, nobles, townspeople, various jobs, trends, art, sculpting, etc. Students could research the topic, and present their area of interest to the class in a compelling and creative manner. Another similar idea is to let students pick a notable person from a time period to research. They could come dressed as the person to class, and pretend to be the person for a day. Presenting a small presentation, then answering questions. This is actually a favorite project that I completed in a Humanities class in high school. It serves the purpose of making a compelling connection to history.
One final idea is introducing new topics as a story before reading a more factual account. As I mentioned previously when discussing reading:
Recent MRI scans show that we use two different part of our brain to read. When we are reading something we believe we will need to remember for a test, we use the pre-frontal cortex (the part of our brain responsible for logic and reasoning), however when we read for pleasure, we generally use the mentalizing part our brain. The 'mentalizing' system is the part of our brain that handles relationships and our place in the world. MRI studies also show that in most people this is the most active part of our brain, becoming active whenever our brain is not directly using the pre-frontal cortex to solve a problem (even when it's only for a few seconds). The mentalizing system is generally quicker at storing new information, and a great resource to help students learn new information more quickly. Perhaps because they use it to tie the new information to their own 'story'. When students read self-chosen, compelling material for pleasure.
If we introduce a topic as a story, we activate the mentalizing system and increase interest. Take a topic like the French Revolution. If instead of laying bare the facts first. Consider starting students with part of a fictional account of Marie Antionette's life pre-marriage, or her days leading up to her encounter with the guillotine. Perhaps a part from a novel about living as a starving French peasant, or a scene from Les Miserables. If we can connect our history to our own lives, the information becomes more valuable and easier to acquire.
Art and Music
As I have not taught either of these subjects, this is again just theory, but many of the same ideas can apply here. For art, consider lettings students choose an artist to imitate (either their work or their person). Consider letting students vote on their favorite work of art, or present and defend their favorite in a bracket style play off.
In music consider letting students choose their music. Assign them different music to listen to each night, or listen in class and then vote. Allowing students to defend their favorite piece of music, or submit a piece to the class to play can also increase personal stake and interest. Teaching students about the lives of the composers can also help increase their personal connection to the music.
I am far from a perfect teacher, and did not mean to write this blog post as a chance to brag about some of my favorite teaching moments. The purpose was to share the teaching moments that were the most successful for me, that are supported by recent brain research. I hope some find this helpful (if you made it all the way here)! For further reading about the brain check out my blog post here, or recommended reading post here. I hope everyone has a restful, joyful, and productive summer!
Entering my 13th year in the classroom; I am a TPRS/CI Elementary Spanish Teacher. Passionate about TPRS/CI, Brain based learning, and using technology to bring the world to our students, and our students to the world.